Dance Professor Analyzes the Meaning of Body Movement

Posted: September 16, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Karen Studd
Karen Studd
Photo courtesy of Karen Studd

Body language is the most basic form of expression human beings use to communicate with one another.

Although it may seem like a simple form of expression, the way people move differs based on factors such as culture, gender and age. Body language refers to any kind of bodily movement or posture — including facial expressions — that transmits a message to the observer.

Karen Studd, associate professor in the Dance Department, has been observing and analyzing body movement for more than 20 years. According to Studd, body movement can be considered a universal language to which every human being instinctively reacts. People observe body movement every day but are not consciously aware of it. Nor do they realize that they respond to it.

As a dancer and a dance teacher, Studd became interested in Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), a system and language for understanding, observing, describing and notating all forms of movement. Developed by Rudolf Laban, known as the father of European modern dance, LMA draws on his theories to describe, interpret and document human movement.

Used as a tool by dancers, athletes and physical and occupational therapists, LMA is one of the most widely used systems of human movement analysis.

“There are very individual and unique aspects of movement that operate at various levels. This is where the art of dance comes into play,” says Studd, who is a certified Laban movement analyst.

“Any form of art is based on trying to communicate a unique and personal experience that connects the artist to the audience on a universal level.”

When she became a movement analyst, Studd realized that body movement was about giving nonverbal movement a language that people could understand. She often uses this method in dance appreciation classes when she asks students to look at a dance and describe what they see. If students can get beyond simply looking at the movements of the performers, they can dispel their preconceived notions of what they think is happening and focus on what the choreographer is actually trying to convey.

According to Studd, the goal of teaching students to analyze dance movement is to help them break down movement’s components so they develop confidence in themselves as observers of movement. She helps them understand what the body does, what aspects of space are used and other qualitative mechanisms that give the movement language.

As a movement analyst, Studd is sought out by others, such as members of the media interested in understanding the body language of presidential candidates.

Through her own analysis and other research conducted on nonverbal communication, Studd has observed that people look for consistency. When there is a conflict between what is stated versus what is done nonverbally, an observer will believe what the speaker does rather than what he or she says. This becomes an issue, particularly for politicians.

Studd currently helps train other movement analysts at the Laban Institute of Movement Studies in Manhattan, where she completed her own certification program. She is also an established choreographer whose work has been performed by the Kanopy Dance Company in Madison, Wis., and the D.C. Contemporary Dance Theatre.

“Movement is so omnipresent in all aspects of life. People depend on body movement to be able to interact with others. At the basis of everything is movement. It defines us in some way.”

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